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Winter 2009

That's Leadership: Senior Lecturer Deborah Jewell-Sherman

deborah_jewell_sherman.jpgOn Deborah Jewell-Sherman's desk is a small box of plain stones that she got when she took over the reins as superintendent in Richmond, Va., back in 2002. They reminded her of the ones that David used in his uphill battle to slay the giant Goliath in the biblical story. At the time she got the stones, Jewell-Sherman, Ed.M.'92, Ed.D.'95, was facing a similar struggle with floundering public schools across her district. But spurred in part by a mother who had also defied the odds, this former teacher and principal turned things around. By the time she left in 2008 to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she had been named Virginia's superintendent of the year and could boast of impressive numbers, including increasing the percentage of schools meeting state accreditation from 20 to 91. In September, Jewell-Sherman talked about what she hopes to pass on to students in the Urban Superintendents Program and the Principal Practicum, why her mother is her hero, and why she is so interested in educational leadership.

What is educational leadership?
I'm a really outcome-focused individual. There are lots of inputs about leadership, but what is most important to me is the difference it makes in enhancing student achievement. Every aspect of the work has to be focused on ensuring that whole systems are able to deliver high-quality education that results in students knowing more, being able to think more clearly, and being able to do more.

Does leadership come easily to you?
We all grapple with whether leadership is innate or learned. It's probably a combination of both. In other facets of my life, even prior to becoming a teacher, I was able to get other people to buy into my vision. Sometimes we got into trouble.

Such as?
In the fourth grade, I got all of my classmates to go in on a surprise party for our teacher. We got our parents to pay for it. We even got into the school early. I went to parochial school and you were supposed to have permission to do those things. We had a beautiful party set up, and the principal made us take it down. I probably should have learned then that you need to ask.

Your mom was your idol. Was she a natural leader?
Very much so. She broke new ground. She had a high school diploma but took the civil service exam and became the first woman in New York to be the director of a social service center. There are lots of people who don't understand why I continue to climb mountains. I was the first in my family to earn a college degree. My family thought that being a teacher was phenomenal. Being a principal was enough. Coming to Harvard, my brother said, "Why would you want to go on to get your doctorate?" I said there were additional mountains I wanted to climb.

How did growing up in the Bronx affect who you became as an educator?
When I was growing up, there were daycare centers in the housing projects staffed by phenomenal educators, very frequently African American women who couldn't get jobs in the New York City public schools. These were well-educated teachers who wanted to stay in the city so they taught in daycare. I knew at four years old that I wanted to be [her teacher] Ms. Foster. I received an unbelievable education from these women. They taught us classical music, Greek phrases, and how to read. This was serendipitous. That's where I learned the power of education.

Eventually you did become Ms. Foster.
My first job was at the Nat Azaro Day Care Center after graduating from New York University. What I always wanted to be was a teacher. That is the license I'm most proud of. When you first took the superintendent's job, you signed a contract that allowed the school board to dismiss you if you didn't raise the number of fully accredited schools in one year. You did -- from 10 to 23. Was that a sign of leadership? I think so. I didn't think about it at the time in that way exactly, but I signed it for three reasons: First, the work had to be done and done well. It's what every child is owed. Number two, I was the woman for the job. There were people who doubted that, but I'm Jeanne Jewell-Bryon's daughter. Lastly, I believed in the teachers, administrators, and support staff in the district. By standing up and signing a contract that was viewed by many as unachievable, that resonated in the district.

Weren't you a little nervous about signing it?
Absolutely. But leadership is risking more. There is a famous [Claude Bissell] saying that I agree with: "Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible." That's leadership.

photo by Joe Mahoney